A CRY FROM THE FAR MIDDLE: Dispatches from a Divided Land. By P.J. O’Rourke. Atlantic Monthly Press. 320 pages. $26.
P.J. O’Rourke may be on to something, in his usual flippant way, when he says that what this country needs is fewer people who know what this country needs.
“We’d be better off, in my opinion, without so many opinions,” he writes. “Especially without so many political opinions. Including my own. Our nation faces a multitude of difficult, puzzling, complex, and abstruse problems. Most Americans aren’t sure what to do about them. But we lack politicians with the courage to say, “I’m not sure what to do about them either.”
In his latest, decidedly uneven salvo, “A Cry from the Far Middle,” the one-time National Lampoon humorist turned conservative pundit proposes a Manifesto For Extreme Moderation, a calm center between the dominant poles of political rancor.
He styles himself as the voice of common sense, and sometimes he is, but at times O’Rourke would do well to follow his own advice: simmer down.
The greatest threat he sees is to classical liberalism, the body of thought that gave us responsibilities as well as all our freedoms, and whose sustaining force, in his estimation, is capitalism. That threat emanates from both ends of the political-cultural divide, he says, grounded in incompetent governance, assorted pipe dreams and (with no small irony) a growing erosion of free speech.
Before COVID-19, we were embroiled in “a long, confusing, tedious, bloody, ugly, mendacious folly of a conflict that threatened to destroy the very idea of democracy.” And he has little hope the tumult will quiet after the virus is history.
“Will American politics be fundamentally changed by the pandemic? Will America emerge from its grievous health crisis, lock-down isolation, economic collapse, and material deprivation with a newly calm, pragmatic, and reasonable attitude toward our political system?
“Will we abandon the factional hysterias and histrionics of the early twenty-first century in favor of a polity based upon competence, civil discourse, and good will? Or will we revert to our petty arguments and stupid animadversions ... I’m betting that human nature will triumph over challenge and adversity. And I don’t mean that in a good way.”
Now and then O’Rourke makes a trenchant point, and it’s well-taken, such as countering the canard that American government does nothing for disadvantaged minorities (more than $840 billion is spent in aid each year). He is no fan of witless populism or rabid partisanship. He doesn’t like Trump and his base or the socialist extremists of the Left. He has equal disdain for Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow.
But the problems with this rather superficial book are its all-embracing generalizations, excessive screeds, hurricane-force sarcasm and a discordant marriage of serious comment and hit-and-miss humor. Others will find fault with his championing unfettered capitalism as the bedrock of our values and future.
As Anne Case and Angus Deaton counter in “Deaths of Despair” (Princeton University Press), the American economic system looks “more like a racket for redistributing upward than an engine of general prosperity. The skewing of wealth and income toward the richest Americans and educated elites over the past half-century, aided by government policies and legislation, has slowly eaten away at the foundations of working-class life, high wages and good jobs.”
Many believe, justifiably, that capitalism can act as a potent force for progress, but only when more sensibly harnessed. As Case and Deaton suggest, better to regulate capitalism, not supplant it with “some fantastical socialist utopia.”
To be fair, O’Rourke doesn’t think capitalism is without flaw, but his particular brand of Libertarianism, and his book, have no strategy for addressing inequity other than staying the course.